(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.
Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, like a sugar rush that just won’t dissipate, one that makes you sicker and sicker with each passing moment. Day-glo fizzy pop tunes daub over the deficiencies of plot, character and originality, accompanying action or montages to mindlessly euphoric effect; it’s the equivalent of a sitcom laugh track, exposing the basic lack of confidence in the material by bludgeoning the viewer with sentiments of happy-joy. As such, at one point, Oh, the alien Boov who befriends Tip (agreeably voiced by Jim Parsons), announces “This is not music. This is just noise”; it’s enough to make you long for the twee ramblings of Randy Newman, and I would never, ever normally condone such saccharine sensibilities.
The Boovs have invaded Earth, displacing the populace to other designated planetary areas in order to perpetuate their yen for fleeing whenever the fearsome Gorg encroach upon them. Tom J Astle and Matt Ember (the superior Epic) have essentially fashioned a vision of a benign universe, in which the worst that can be said of aliens is that they are stupid; Boov leader Captain Smek (Steve Martin, alas, in Looney Tunes: Back in Action over-exertion mode) is ultimately revealed to have brought down the wrath of the Gorg through inadvertently stealing their sperm bank during a peace meeting that absolutely echoes Adams’ meeting between the Vl’Hurgs and the G’Gugvuntts, only rather tepidly. There are numerous warnings about making assumptions of others throughout, from the true nature of the Gorg, to the Boov view that humans are just like animals, “simple and backwards”. And, of course, the humans teach the Boov a thing or two; in particular, Oh learns about courage. There’s even a lesson in art via Van Gogh (“It’s not about how they look, its about how they feel”).
This being an animation, plot holes tend to get a free pass, but I had to wonder how a 13 year-old girl is so au fait with driving (at one point Tip is overcome with concern over the absence of her mother, and it comes across as if the writers have only just remembered, at a very late stage, that she’s not an entirely self-sufficient, pro-active vessel for Rhianna), and the convenience of the alien equivalent of a text message (long gone are the days when writers would think up futuristic devices; now everything must be banally familiar) being sent to the entire universe (how does that work?) One wonders if the inoffensive Boov design comes consciously off the back of Minions; if so, it isn’t nearly as memorable.
Any movie that ends with “Now everyday is the best day ever” needs a shot of grounding to counteract its hyperbolic, bubble-gum pop sentiments and aesthetic, but Home only very occasionally reaches for something more. At one point Oh leaps into the ocean to restore his temperature to “happiness”, and there’s a moment of stillness as Tip sits on the bonnet of her modified car (pimped up, with the accompanying musical fanfare) waiting for his return. The design of the Gorg, and their reveal, is quite good, if reminiscent of the retconned Ice Warriors in Doctor Who. And tellingly, the best character here is Tip’s cat Pig, probably because no one can put mealy words in his mouth.
Most of the gags are fairly obvious, from Oh taking things literally (microwaving a cookbook, brushing his teeth with a toilet brush) to the usual splattering of toilet humour (Oh needs to Number Three at least once a year, which admittedly is a cut above usual standards, if not on the level of the seashells in Demolition Man), and that’s Home’s problem in the main. The ear-assaulting dance anthems and easy emoting aside, it’s a fairly inoffensive concoction, and a fairly obvious one. Tim Jonson started out so well with DreamWorks, co-directing what is still one of their best (and smartest) pictures Antz, but he’s slumming it with Home. Or maybe it’s down to that Katzenberg influence, doing his darndest to homogenise every detail of the DWA universe.